Lance Starr says he and other immigration attorneys in Utah had heard complaints about The Alcala Law Firm but didn't have evidence until recently of any possible illegalities in how it handled cases.
But then two former employees of the Glendale firm asked him last year to review their applications to legalize their presence in the United States, which had been prepared by principle attorney James Hector Alcala but rejected by the government. Starr spotted what appeared to be forged letters verifying that one of them had worked for Mexican employers.
The American Fork attorney -- who had worked for the Alcala firm for less than a year beginning in 2006 and now has his own practice -- knew his former colleague had been living in Utah during the time he supposedly worked in Mexico. Starr felt ethically obligated to report his suspicions to the U.S. Attorney's Office.
The evidence likely was included in a federal investigation that resulted in an indictment unsealed Tuesday against Alcala, his law firm, seven current or former employees and a property management company.
"The investigation went beyond anything I had ever imagined," Starr said Wednesday.
Investigators say the Alcala Law Firm lied on applications to help 10 companies in Salt Lake, Utah and Davis counties get work visas for ineligible foreign workers. The companies might or might not have known they were getting bad legal advice, authorities say, and the investigation is continuing.
Among the witnesses in the case are the two former employees who came to Starr for help. The lawyer recommended that they stay out of the matter because they could be deported once Immigration and Customs Enforcement, one of the agencies investigating the case, learned about their immigration status.
The two decided to cooperate.
"They said that he hurt too many people," Starr said.
Juan M. Ruiz, president of the Latin American Chamber of Commerce in Utah, said he has heard complaints from immigrants that The Alcala Law Firm promised to fix their immigration problems but did nothing after taking their money. Those allegations are among the reasons the chamber is setting up a hot line for people to complain, he said.
Ruiz worries these types of abuses will be even more commonplace with the passage of Senate Bill 81, which requires public employers to verify the legal status of workers and asks local police to help enforce federal immigration statutes.
"All of these people that are afraid are a little more prone to fraud," Ruiz said. "There's a really good chance that there will be predators."
Authorities are calling The Alcala Law Firm case the largest fraud operation of its kind to be uncovered in Utah. The alleged conspiracy operated from July 2005 to June 2009 and involved the H-2B visa program, under which employers petition for permits that allow foreign nationals to work temporarily in the United States. Investigators say more than 700 petitions filed by the Salt Lake City firm led to the issuance of more than 5,000 work visas, the majority of which were fraudulent.
Reporter María Villaseñor contributed to this story.
A Utah immigration attorney and four of his current or former employees pleaded not guilty Wednesday to various charges of conspiracy, visa fraud and inducing undocumented aliens to reside in the United States.
Appearing before U.S. Magistrate David Nuffer in Salt Lake City were James Hector Alcala, 41, principle attorney of The Alcala Law Firm; Carlos Manuel Vorher, 43, a firm paralegal and former U.S. Border Patrol agent; Andres Lorenzo Acosta Parra, 31, a firm employee who had worked as a visa assistant at the U.S. Consulate in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico; and Gustavo Ballesteros-Munoz, 45, accountant for the law firm.
Nuffer ordered Alcala, Vorher and Acosta Parra released from jail and to be monitored via ankle bracelets. The magistrate agreed to requests by Alcala and Vorher that Acosta Parra get the only ankle bracelet available Wednesday because his wife is expected to give birth this week. Alcala and Vorher will be released when two more ankle bracelets are available, probably today.
Carlos Enrique Gomez-Alvarez, 41, who was arrested in New York while taking the bar exam in Buffalo, also entered a not guilty plea in New York on Wednesday and is expected to be transported to Utah this week.
Ballesteros-Munoz is scheduled to have a hearing today to determine if he will be released pending trial.
Daniel Trigo Villavicencio, 30, who allegedly described himself as in-house counsel for The Alcala Law Firm, was arrested Wednesday in Houston.
Two other defendants who worked for the law firm -- Olga Adriana Garza Muniz, 47, and Florentino Jose Ayala Villarreal, 39, both of Mexico -- are not in custody yet.